My two teenage boys are working summer jobs that require them to be at work by 8 a.m.; they make it on time, but their sleep cycles aren’t adjusting, no matter when they go to bed at night. So they come home at least once a week and crash on their beds for several hours, in addition to sleeping late on the weekends. This still isn’t enough sleep for them; I can tell because they are grumpier than usual, more often than usual.
Watching them, I wonder if most of “normal adolescent behavior” is actually caused by sleep deprivation. Teenagers are prone to shifted sleep cycles, so they literally can’t fall asleep at night between about 9 pm and midnight, which makes getting to school by 8:30 (or 7:30 if you have an early-morning class) difficult. Then they have school all day, sports and other after-school activities that often go until 9 or 10 at night, and then they have homework to do. When do they sleep? I don’t see how they can get even a normal eight hours of sleep a night, much less the nine or ten hours teens usually require.
I vividly recall sleep deprivation from when my kids were babies, and I know it is insidious and all-pervasive in its affects. Physical symptoms that threaten future health include a compromised immune system, heart disease, hypertension, and tremors; more immediate physical issues include slower reaction times, slurred speech, a tendency to eat too much or the wrong foods, and increased effectiveness of caffeine and alcohol. Emotional symptoms include grumpiness; poor judgment; aggressive or inappropriate behavior; an impaired ability to think, moderate emotions, and handle stress; lower concentration levels; poor memory; rigid thought patterns; and depression - all common teen characteristics. How much of that behavior would go away if the kids simply got a good night’s sleep on a regular basis?
I doubt we’ll find out any time soon, because that would require two major mental shifts in our culture. First we would have to set up school to accommodate teen sleep cycles rather than adult convenience; even shifting high-school hours an hour and a half later, 10:00 to 5:00, would help. Teachers could use the productive (for adults) morning time to prepare for classes instead of doing it late in the day when they are tired, and students would be more alert if they weren’t so tired.This change would force logistical changes in bus and parental schedules, but it could be done; it is no worse than the shifts to year-round school that many districts have already made.
The bigger challenge is for American culture to move away from glorifying activity for its own sake. We admire people who “get a lot done”, who are always busy; someone sitting quietly and thinking, staying in bed long enough to get a full night’s sleep, or even reading a book (unless it is work related or they are on vacation) is lazy and unproductive - possibly the American cardinal sin. This attitude is what keeps kids busy morning to night with band and speech team and booster clubs and who knows what else, all to make sure their college applications look “impressive”. We need to start valuing time to think, getting enough rest, doing a few things well rather than everything in a frenzy – for everyone, not just teenagers. Without this shift, activities will simply move to the morning hours before school and kids will still be short of sleep. With this shift, it would be easier for everyone to get enough sleep, to stay healthy, to enjoy life; and maybe adolescence would be easier to survive.